Jane Russell: A tribute to the sultry silver-screen siren

Jane-RussellImage Credit: John Kobal Foundation/Getty ImagesJane Russell, the Hollywood silver-screen siren who ignited a tinder box with Howard Hughes’ bosom-heaving 1943 western The Outlaw, died on Monday at age 89. But the legacy she leaves behind will always be more than just the sum of her ample parts. The raven-haired beauty was only 19 and working as a receptionist in a doctor’s office when the notorious ladies’ man Hughes spotted her and cast her as Rio MacDonald, the smoldering girlfriend of Sheriff Pat Garrett, in The Outlaw. Overnight, she was catapulted from obscurity to infamy, thanks to the movie’s poster, which featured Russell reclining suggestively on a haystack, holding a pistol in one hand and implying a world of sin with her curves. Censors went apoplectic and the Roman Catholic Church protested the film, but it was too late — a star was born.

Because of Russell’s physical assets — and the way Hughes displayed them — The Outlaw did not receive a national release until 1950, seven years after it was completed. Hughes, the dashing and world-famous aviator-turned-Tinseltown producer, was said to have designed a special brassiere for Russell for the film to contain and best show off her 38D chest. (Russell maintained afterwards that she never actually wore it). As a film, The Outlaw doesn’t hold up to some of the era’s best westerns, but because of Russell’s death-defying curves and come-hither gaze, it’s become an indelible piece of movie history.

Riding her red-hot overnight stardom, Russell soon became one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood. She signed a seven-year deal with Hughes (who obviously knew a good thing when he saw it) and soon shared the screen with Bob Hope in 1948’s The Paleface, Robert Mitchum in 1951’s His Kind of Woman, and Frank Sinatra in 1951’s Double Dynamite — a title that contains a less-than-subtle play on words. She would become one of the biggest sex symbols and most bankable starlets of the post-war era, even if the films themselves never really bothered to show off her acting chops. Her best films from the ’50s are 1952’s Macao (again, with Mitchum) and 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — a musical comedy that paired the bombshell with and equally va-va-voom counterpart, Marilyn Monroe. Talk about Double Dynamite!

During the ’50s and into the ’60s, Russell began to sing more and more in her films, which led her toward a fruitful singing career that included both pop and gospel songs. Her last big screen role was a smallish part in the 1970 detective thriller Darker Than Amber. Afterwards, she continued to perform in Las Vegas and occasionally on stage. But her biggest second act came from her role in the ’70s as a celebrity endorser for Playtex’s Cross-Your-Heart bras for “full-figured gals.” (The role fit her like a… glove.) Russell also became increasingly more active in spreading the gospel and conservative politics, which alienated some of her fans, but won her others. In 2003, she referred to herself as “a teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist.” Russell, who began her career as a divisive figure, remained one until the end.

To check out a gallery of classic Jane Russell photos from the Life Magazine archives, click here.


Comments (19 total) Add your comment
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  • Sarah

    RIP, Jane. You’ll be missed.

  • ST

    We’ll miss you Jane! I just watched “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” for the first time a few months ago and loved it. You were both a star and a lady.

  • mj

    I loved her movies & her no nonsense attitude!

  • Shiny

    Loved Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Is that Uncle Billy in The Outlaw? Note to gunfighters; never hop in front of a gunfighter when he’s just shot a bunch of your buddies. It’s a bit counterintuitive. Best to, I don’t know, run?

  • Karikata

    Loved her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. So funny and witty and talented. The clip above when she’s imitating Marilyn is priceless. That movie was magic. One of my favorites. RIP Jane.

  • Ted Strickland

    Famous for what? She couldnt act at all Her first movie the OUTLAW
    was so over rated it sucked… Evidenly she was a good person but no acting ability ever !

    • Sarah

      She was great in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes!

  • Jake

    You guys should have posted her “Lookin’ for Trouble” number from The French Line. Yowza!

  • Julie

    “I don’t know what you do honey — unless you put novocaine in your lipstick.” One of the classic best movie lines ever.

  • ia

    Today is my 60th birthday. I was 2 yrs.-old when GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES was released. However, I did get to see it when I was about 11 yrs.-old on TV when TV would bring these movies. Ms. RUSSELL and the late MARILYN MONROE will be forever bonded because of this movie. I am an enormous fan of Ms. MONROE…I have a huge amount of MARILYN MONROE memorabilia including many picture books of her. By far, one of my favorite photos is the one of Ms. MONROE and Ms. RUSSELL putting their hand prints in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in 1953. Ms. RUSSELL and Ms. MONROE were the epitome of sexiness in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, and they sure showed it in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES! RIP, Ms. RUSSELL and please say “hi” to MARILYN for me. I know you are both in heaven or whatever we spiritual-minded people call it.

  • jared4ever

    She was so wonderful in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” Loved her!!!

  • Ron

    This might bore you young people, just bear with me. I had a cousin, Ruth, she lived in Oceanside , was 18 in 1943, I was nine. She asked my Dad, her uncle, if she could take me to “The Show”. My Dad said O.K., she had a 1939 Ford “bathtub” a 4 door convertible. It was a hot car and so was she. She had driven up from Oceanside just to see this movie, It was where one of the few places in Southern California that it was playing. Everytime I think or see anything about JR, I think of that Saturday afternoon, going up to Hollywood , the Hawaii Theatre on Hollywood Blvd , just east of Gower. With the top down, the wind blowing, being “alone” with a real girl for the first time, a girl who filled out her sweater, chewing gum and talking to me like a “real” person. Guess what movie we saw? I was never the same ever again. Still not. On top of that JR was married to my first real football hero Bob Waterfield, it doesn’t get any better than that. By the way on the way back from the movie she instructed me not to tell my folks what movie we saw, I never did. RIP Jane

  • Prunella Von Schleidlhaagen

    I’m kind of sad that she described herself the same way Ann Coulter does, but I still love her. Nothing will diminish my love for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and I would like to see more of her movies.

  • WHISKERS

    ICONS-I doubt the younger generations “close to even partially appreciate” these paramounts of stardom, from back in the day. Not being critical. Just reality. Different obviously, but like the last surviving WW1 veteran, who just passed@110 years of age. ICONS

  • daws

    jane russell was a hollywood screen legand without a doubt ..r.i.p

  • blondemoment

    RIP Jane. Your legend will live on.

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